Following the success of Telltale Games’ brilliant and moving series of downloadable games based on The Walking Dead comic series, it was only a matter of time until gamers would see a spin-off of AMC’s hit show. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many licensed titles, it simply fails to live up to its potential and the gaming community’s lofty expectations.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct gives players the ability to step into the shoes of Daryl Dixon as he and his brother, Merle, traverse the walker-infested streets of Atlanta – playing out as a prequel of sorts to their first appearance on the television show. Published by Activision and developed by Terminal Reality, the idea behind the game sounds great on paper and could have potentially lead to an interesting experience – at least more so than the expected approach of building a game filled with familiar faces and centered around the adventures of Rick Grimes. The final product however, is rife with missed storytelling opportunities and awkward mechanics that are bound to frustrate gamers of all skill levels and interests.
Following a brief introductory sequence, the game’s inherent flaws are not immediately apparent. Sure the textures are muddy and the lighting effects (which this type of game should really rely on to create a believable atmosphere) are subpar at best, but while creeping around the eerie remnants of an abandoned southern town, you get the feeling that there may be a tense stealth shooter beneath the ugly veneer. Scavenging for food, fuel, and supplies, I picked off walkers one by one with a quick blow to the head, silently dispatching them to avoid the attention of others. This methodical approach to dealing with the undead that are shambling around you would not only be the most logical and satisfying way to play through the game, but also the most logical canonically. Unfortunately this is where Survival Instincts begins to falter as it’s evident early on that enemies quickly respawn. Taking your time to play the game as if you were really in the Walking Dead universe and silently scouting and clearing out an area is largely a waste of time. Zombies will quickly reappear to replace ones you’ve killed, often right out of thin air and sometimes right next to you. This was likely an intentional decision made to constantly keep the pressure on you to force you through each area quickly but, given the relatively short four-hour duration of the game as it is, it wasn’t necessarily needed.
This is compounded by wildly inconsistent NPC behavior, poor collision detection, and wonky sound design. At times, the undead will walk by you, unfazed by your company – in other instances, a group would spot me from a hundred yards away while I was sneaking through the dark. Audio cues normally assist in determining where an enemy is in relation to your character, but you will often hear a signature hissing and gurgling through one of your home theater channels like a walker is right upon you only to find that they’re quite distant. If you do manage to get swarmed though, there are plenty of flimsy barricades scattered about to keep your foes at bay. Small wooden police barriers and other thigh-high objects are often enough to keep a zombies from reaching you as, even though you can easily circumvent these obstacles, zombies cannot knock them over and will usually run in place against them, seldom having the insight to simply walk around them. Better yet, standing on something that is even slightly raised up from street level will put you at complete safety as you cannot be attacked unless you have both feet firmly on the ground. But even if you do somehow find yourself in the middle of a walker herd, it’s not unmanageable as the walkers in the game are some of the most polite you’re likely to encounter. If grabbed by one, you are able to initiate a quick melee attack to drive your combat knife through its skull. Players may repeat this ad nauseum in the middle of a crowd to literally wipe out dozens of walkers while remaining unscathed.
But these are more technical gripes about the combat mechanics that won’t likely phase all the casual gamers who are bound to pick up the game up solely to play as their favorite character from the show. What will sting this crowd are the story elements, or lack thereof. I was really hoping for a strong backstory for Daryl and Merle that I could sink my teeth into. Instead, Merle gets maybe nine or ten total cumulative minutes of screen time as Daryl meanders through an adventure devoid of a plotline. Players will literally spend the duration of their experience doing little aside from scavenging for supplies and meeting survivors. It could have been great if they focused on a few specific surviving characters that were scripted into the story that you could stick with you to the end (T-Dog for example). Instead, you run into several paper-thin characters that offer only a few lines of dialogue, in which they all offer to help you, and you can choose to recruit them and then leave them as you see fit. After all, your car only has three free seats and you certainly wouldn’t want to ask people to shift over a bit to make more room. This will inevitably lead to you kicking folks out of your group to make room for others. I feel like, given that any iteration of The Walking Dead is based around intense character interaction and camaraderie, the decision to leave a member of your group in the middle of a pack of walkers for no other reason than that your car is too small should carry a little more weight. Hitting the “dismiss” button is all too easy but, without having any supporting characters that show an ounce of personality, it’s hard to say the game handles such affairs with heartlessness – the whole experience simply feels empty and hollow.
Once in your car, you essentially have the option of travelling via the highway (which consumes less gas but makes you more prone to mechanical break down) or on the back roads (which are safer but consume more gas). Either way you travel is inconsequential as you will continue to require supplies, which will send you into town time and time again to find the same items in carbon copies of the same buildings you’ve searched twenty times over. In the end the scariest thing about the game isn’t the blood-soaked setting or the zombie theme, it’s the squandered potential to deliver an experience the fans deserve. As a $5 or $10 download on PSN or XBLA, a purchase would be easier to justify, but at it’s current MSRP of $50, it’s certainly a difficult sell, even for the most die hard fans of the source material.